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The Personal Touch: Knowing When it's Time to Leave a Job

"Why am I still doing this?"

We've all asked this question at work. When a sale falls through or the higher-ups start assigning more busy work, it's natural to start second-guessing.

But what if it's more than that? What if this sentiment doesn't dissolve quickly? What if we're constantly thinking of doing something else?

It's so easy to lose our way at work. The long hours and heavy workloads don't always lead to the corner office. Style often trumps substance—and the best ideas can be quickly undone by self-interest. Everyone grows weary of the politics and impatient with the repetition.

Sometimes, we wonder if we've stayed too long, if we're destined for so much more. We're haunted by those great fears: loss, change, and the unknown. Over time, it all adds up.

Some people mask these frustrations with salves like alcohol, shopping, eating, or recklessness. Others shut out the world and indulge in mindless escapism like the Internet. These reactions, when left unchecked, eventually sap our energy. At best, we grow numb. At worst, we act out.

And the stakes are only getting higher. Just watch the news: 500 jobs slashed here, 10,000 there. Again, it all adds up. The unemployed have strong credentials—and they'd love to switch places with you. Deep inside, we know how quickly life can unravel thanks to an illness or mistake. And so we stay in place, clinging to what we know.

Of course, the restlessness rarely goes away. As we grow older, we compromise. More and more gets taken from us: our loved ones, health, idealism, and legacy.

To get our momentum back, maybe we do need to look more seriously at a transition. Maybe it's finally time to do a self-inventory and evaluate our job satisfaction.

For those answering in the affirmative, make sure your evaluation addresses the following nine areas:

1. Stimulation. Do you still have a passion for the industry? Does the job still stimulate you intellectually? Do you feel like you're still growing? Do you enjoy interacting with your clients? Is your company still investing in your development, whether it's training or new assignments and experiences?

2. Corporate leadership. Do you believe the organization still brings value to customers? Do you have faith in company leadership making decisions that affect you? Do they have a clear direction and strong long-term positioning? Does your company culture and mission still fit your belief system? Why or why not?

3. Career. Are you satisfied with your role? Have you been setting career goals and tracking you progress? Have you been developing new skills to keep yourself marketable? Do you foresee any advancement opportunities to further your career path? Are there any changes on the horizon that could eventually change or erode your position? Are any personal behaviors holding you back?

4. Motivation. Why do you work? Is it just for the house payment, insurance, or occasional night at Olive Garden? Do you use your job to stay in your comfort zone and hide from rejection or failure? What truly makes you happy? (For that matter, do you truly want to be happy?) How does your job help you get what you desire from life?

5. Change. Do you have the financial means to make a change? Are you mentally prepared so there are no regrets? Do you have any fears that should be addressed? What knowledge and skills will you need to acquire to switch jobs, industries, or careers? How will this impact your personal life, such as family routines? Are you ready to go back and prove yourself all over again?

6. Resources. Do you still get the budget, equipment, and manpower to accomplish the job? Do you have the authority and backing of senior management?

7. Relationships. Do you still like your bosses? Trust them? Are you still learning from them? Do you still feel a chemistry and camaraderie with your employees or peers? Overall, do you feel respected and appreciated?

8. Behavioral. What is really triggering your discontent? Are you going through a phase, such as a mid-life crisis, that is clouding your judgment and exacerbating your doubts? Could your feelings stem from something deeper and more serious, such as depression?

9. The big picture. When you reflect on your career in retirement, what would give you pride? What would be your pinnacle—and have you achieved it yet? What would you want people to remember about you in your obituary?

When it comes to career change, never make a rash decision. Create a "stay versus go" list to get everything—your fears, risks, and rewards—out on the table. You can even assign a point system to remove emotion from the equation.

Sometimes, changing your environment can serve as a catalyst for a more profound transformation; it gives you the opportunity to shed the weight. We live in uncertain times. Do your current perks—money, personal reputation, relationships, hierarchical stature, job security, community roots, and lifestyle—outweigh the potential rewards of change? Can you cope with the potential drawbacks: rejection, lower pay, re-location, and unfamiliarity?

If you decide to take that leap and start a job hunt, what do you do? While the technologies have changed, the fundamentals remain the same:

• Update your resume. Focus particularly on quantifiable successes using numbers and statistics.

• Research companies. Whether you scour the Internet or tap your network, identify whether an organization's culture and values (real and professed) fit with you.

• Network. Expand your circle, whether you attend events, join organizations, or employ new media like LinkedIn and Twitter.

• Evaluate your skills. Take an inventory: Do your experiences and skill sets translate into your ideal job? Along the same lines, conduct some research—such as evaluating job ads and speaking to HR professionals and association leaders—to learn which skills in demand now.

• Build a portfolio. Whether in the form of reference letters or tangible work products, be ready to show prospective employers what you bring to the table beyond a polished resume and cover letter.

• Apply for a position. Get your feet wet and make your mistakes early. Consider it practice.

• Prepare your 30-second pitch. Just like in sales, you need to convey who you are, what you want, and how you can help. Beyond that, you need to articulate what makes you different from (and even better than) everyone else.

• Do extra. The best companies are always seeking out new ideas and energy. Seek out extra work and growth assignments to start positioning yourself now for your next job.

• Find a fallback. Take a class or a second job. Look for opportunities to do consulting, outside projects, or temp work, or even launch a company on the side.

• Don't forget your current job. Stay current with assignments, don't badmouth anyone, and keep your unhappiness to yourself. You have your most valuable asset—your reputation—to keep intact.

SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at jschmittdbq@mchsi.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.